Note: The content of the proposal is still subject to revision and amendment.
Why do we Need Real Conflict of Interest Reporting?
Disclosures required by the state ethics commission are not posted online for the public, but must be requested, approved, the person whose information is requested notified, the requester's picture ID required. Months are allowed to pass for processing, and printing costs may be required. This process is intimidating: imagine the political repercussions of requesting the disclosures of a powerful political figure!
Investigations are confidential. The problem is that voters and the press should have the right to know of the appearance of conflict of interest, even if the outcome is unknown. Voters and the press should know when legislator should be recused from voting on a subject that presents a conflict of interst.
The State Ethics Commission has engaged in numerous instances of penalizing conflicts of interest, but it does not report in a public, centralized manner on conflicts of interest, as investigations are confidential. On one hand, this seems fair, but it flies in the face of transparency needed to prevent corruption. While the details of investigations may be kept confidential, the appearance of conflicts of interest should be public.
As described in the checks and balances section, requests for conflict of interest disclosures may involve printing costs and several months of preparation.
The printing costs mean that running a full investigation may be expensive for a reporter or newspaper, especially with so many strapped for cash. The several months of preparation required for delivery mean that the materials provided may be less than timely in order to address any question the reporter or press may have.
The State Ethics Commission reports being overstretched. This is to be expected as the commission has reported ratios of more than 1,000 “subjects” – legislators, public employees, political appointees, etc. – per agency staff member. The commission itself meets less than once a month.
This proposed ballot question would shift some of the workload away from the State Ethics Commission, which reports being overstretched in its duties, while leaving the commission in place to review complaints.
Despite several concerning executive branch appointments in the past, hardly any investigations or prosecutions appear to exist into these appointments . How could private charter school interests be appointed to the Massachusetts Board of Education for public schools? How could former private utility executives be appointed to run manage the Department of Public Utilities?
Unlike judges, the State Ethics Commission appointees return to the workforce and need to continue earning a living. This is an enormous political weakness.
Appointments on the State Ethics Commission last 5 years, which means that appointees rely on the continuing goodwill of powerful members of the executive branch to continue as a commission member. The position is not set in the state constitution, but is set in law, which means aspects of the job can be altered or eliminated by the legislature -- this is another weakness.
By far the biggest weakness is the 5-year term and reliance on executive appointment. Obviously, the executive branch even has the ability to offer attractive job opportunities as a type of bribe. A threat also exists that those job opportunities will not exist. Further, any commission member doing his job 'too well' may become a persona non grata.
The same problem exists on the municipal level. Administrators may hire less qualified family and friends, and knowledgeable teachers have difficulty criticizing because the administrator holds power over their jobs. In the same way, the State Commission of Ethics lacks political power in large part due to reliance on the goodwill of the executive and legislative branches.
Voters need to know if a public official has stocks or a job offer in the same industry being regulated by that official.
The lack of public reporting on conflicts of interests increases the power of individuals being investigated, because it removes away public pressure .
Public reporting helps prevent the concealment and non-investigation of such conflicts of interest. Concealment may be attractive even to avoid a difficult, potentially protracted legal battle. Hence, separating reporting from legal judgment serves as a check on the instinct to avoid disclosure or prosecution even where merited.
In addition, such separation helps to add pressure to prevent bribery. If the State Commission of Ethics were examining a case where one person's vote could decide the outcome, bribery could come into play. When public awareness exists, bribery is less likely to be attractive.
Currently, most investigations into conflicts of interest are private until proven true, and investigation, reporting, and judgment often within the same entity.
State law, bizarrely, does not require the same disclosures of the spouse as of the officer. This is an enormous loophole.
State law also does not require disclosure of debts in the "ordinary course of business" -- this vague statement is an enormous loophole. Being in substantial debt can lead to corruption, and should be disclosed, and receipts or sums spent in relation to debt should be open to examination.
Requiring reporting and disclosures on conflicts of interest could substantially improve decisions of voters and help lead to public pressure for change where appropriate.
Voters need to know if a public official has stocks or a job offer in the same industry being regulated by that official, regardless of whether the official has engaged in corrupt acts. The knowledge is necessary to allow accountability to be distributed among voters and residents -- a neighborhood watch, if you will. No single person or entity can investigate every sin, and so transparency is a necessary component to assure government integrity and accountability.
Creating an independent agency to publicly report on conflicts of interest creates some additional public pressure for the State Commission of Ethics and any other relevant authority to investigate corruption, and highlights any barriers to investigation.
Independence allows that pressure to apply to powerful members of the executive and legislative branches.
The ballot question, still subject to revision, currently proposes an investigative agency that would be led by an elected director with investigative reporting and journalism experience and who would provide public summaries of Massachusetts state and federal officer conflicts of interest. The director would have the right to hire the staff necessary to fulfill these duties and would have an extended 15-year term.
Information would be made easily available to the public, either online or in satellite offices and libraries, in a format easy to understand. This public platform is necessary because not state officials may wish to have this information available, and even some media outlets may take the same view.
When conflicts of interest and shady deals exist among officials, there needs to be an independent platform to share that information with the public.
This amendment provides a public option for investigative reporting specific to conflicts of interest of Massachusetts state and federal officers. We need to support this kind of journalism, as there doesn't seem to be much funding elsewhere. Investigation is a bigger cost than writing, and so supporting investigation may allow traditional media to write more detailed investigative pieces.
Investigative reporting is under the gun in many countries, and difficult anywhere.
Printed media outlets are going bankrupt and being purchased by billionaires, suggesting that those media outlets will serve as puppets to billionaires.
If those billionaires simply want to make more money, investigative journalism will not happen as it is costly. If those billionaires are like Carlos Slim, then investigative reporting will most likely stall and suffer.
Who is Carlos Slim? At one time, he owned 17% stock in the NY Times and he still owns a substantial interest. He is a billionaire who controls Latin America's biggest mobile telecom company and who has been connected to illegal drug sales and mafia tactics. Investigating or criticizing Carlos Slim or his operations is not likely to end well for anyone.
This ballot question proposal offers a small measure of support for investigative journalism and reporting specific to our government officials, although others have proposed all journalism needs support.
When whistleblowers report conflicts of interest and shady deals, there needs to be an independent platform to share that information with the public regardless of prosecution or locality.
Issues such as installation of power lines, pipelines, wireless service, management of parks, sale of property, hiring unqualified family -- actions may reveal conflicts of interest which remain known only within small communities but which reflect character of the official.
Unfortunately, conflicts of interest may be reported only locally, or in papers inaccessible to the poor, and fail to receive state-wide attention despite participation of a state official.
Despite whistleblowers, media sometimes fails to report issues or fails to do so in quantity and quality sufficient for attention and memory.
Censorship may even be intentional. Project Censored has a running list of the top 25 most censored stories in the U.S. media. The attack on Iraq was predicated on imaginary weapons of mass destruction, yet during that time few media outlets questioned the U.S. administration as did few in federal Congress. Censorship is sometimes self-inflicted, as even media outlets fear being out of step with 'patriotism', powerful interests, subscribers and advertisers.
Before crimes can be recognized, attention needs to exist. Therefore, an investigative reporting agency evaluating financial disclosures and noting conflicts of interest is a first step towards uncovering crime.
Further, the amendment proposes specialized auditing, auditing that is not focused on whether public spending is correct, but whether conflicts of interest exist in public and private receipts and spending. Additionally, greater disclosure will be required, although private information such as social security numbers will be protected.
Investigation is a difficult task, and deserves support.
Investigative journalists are being hit with frivolous, confidential lawsuits when conducting investigations as the Foreign Policy Centre reports.
The Investigative Consortium of International Journalists reports from leaked documents that international banks and federal government are doing nothing to prevent money laundering, such as most recently evidenced by the $50 million processed by JPMorgan for Paul Manafort, including 6.9 million processed after his departure as former campaign manager for Donald Trump.
Yet, we can and should be able to require and investigate disclosures from our state and federal officers, and further share any conflicts of interest with the public.
When conflicts of interests are freely reported and investigated, voters and public pressure will likely lead to change in advance of or before any prosecution and prevent re-election in egregious cases.
Government officials played a part in the 10 billion+ cost overruns of the Big Dig, which provided that contractors would make more money the more highway work cost. Investigative reporting did not occur until problems such as leaking tunnels appeared. Conflicts of interest reporting in an accessible location for the public would help to make issues clear to voters, often in advance of problems.
Investigative reporting by a journalist uncovered fraudulent overtime reporting at Troop F within the state police, which meant taxpayers were paying for services that were not provided.
The Inspector General, an appointee who has a 5-year term, reports saving 1.8 million in settlements and restitution in the year 2020, although primarily related to public employees rather than high-level officials and including the police investigation. The Inspector General also reports responding to 2,986 complaints through its fraud hotline.
If there was more public reporting of conflicts of interest, some of these investigations would be headed off as public pressure would prevent the conflicts of interest from continuing.
The lack of trust in media stems in part from the erosion of media independence from big business, but also from perception of partisanship.
The 15-year elected term of the proposed director allows independence from political party preferences and other influences. The requirement that the director have the staff and resources necessary places the director on an independent footing which few can access.
The amendment encourages examination of campaign funding as well as of funding of relevant nonprofits and other organizations endorsing or critiquing.
While some campaign funding & nonprofits funding may be filed as public information, more needs to be done to examine whether conflicts of interest exist in those filings.
Any criticism or support of officers or candidates needs to have its funders identified, to help disclose conflicts of interest.
The fact that trees have so little protection in state law from logging in state parks or from solar farms despite obvious benefits to environmental and public health is suspicious, suggesting powerful interests in logging or solar farms.
Big utilities are better able to control and profit from solar farms, and not so with independently-owned solar on houses. Hence, our solar farm regulations are reprehensible.
Legislation to protect trees nearly always stalls and rarely passes - despite fantastic legislation as listed under the MA Legislation page. Why? Because there isn't any immediate cash or financial interest in saving trees, whereas there is money in logging them.
This conflict of interest issue applies not only to trees, but to other sensible environmental and public health protections that never seem to pass while other measures benefiting big business often do.